In a country where many over-the-counter medicines such as aspirin can only be bought at an Apotheke, the relegation of certain kinds of margarine to pharmacist supervision might seem absurdly consistent.
But Foodwatch is serious, focussing on the Becel pro.activ margarine sold by Unilever with the promise that it reduces cholesterol levels thanks to its “highly effective plant sterols.”
Yet the watchdog says that there is no proof a lower cholesterol level from plant sterols actually results in fewer heart problems – in contrast to the use of medicines. In a dossier on the subject, Foodwatch says that reports on side-effects of plant sterols were increasing and that they may even increase the chances of coronary heart disease by contributing to deposits in blood vessels.
Although the group admits there is no conclusive proof on risks from plant sterols, it criticises Unilever for ignoring the indications.
“The food industry would like to portray itself as saviour with the help of functional foods like Becal pro.activ. But people who are ill should go to the doctor and not start to play around with their own blood values on the basis of television advertising. Such ‘foods' are anyhow not to be recommended for people without high cholesterol levels,” the report said.
It said Unilever should stop selling Becel pro.activ in supermarkets and apply for a drugs license – which would require research on risks, side-effects and benefits. The effect of plant sterols in reducing cholesterol levels does not necessarily equate to a benefit for those people taking them, Foodwatch said.
And it quotes the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), the British body which regulates medicines in a report on lowering cholesterol to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, saying, “If you are at higher risk, your GP or nurse will not recommend that you use spreads, drinks and yoghurts containing plant sterols and stanols to lower cholesterol because there is not enough evidence at the moment that these products prevent cardiovascular disease.”
A Unilever statement in Die Welt daily paper said, “The cholesterol-lowering effect of the product is proven in more than 40 studies and undisputed.”
The firm said that the scientific thinking was that a reduction in cholesterol fundamentally reduced the risk of coronary heart disease, no matter how that reduction was achieved.